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Strasburg Negotiations Between Nationals, Boras Could Result in Historic Signing
But demand, while a crucial factor in free agency, is not part of the equation in the draft, which is designed to maximize the team's leverage in negotiations -- especially since a rule was created years ago to grant the team a corresponding compensation pick in the following year's draft if it is unable to sign one of its picks. It is a rule that has benefited the Nationals, who also hold the 10th overall pick as compensation for failing to sign Missouri right-hander Aaron Crow last year.
Most industry observers expect Strasburg to settle for something far below $52 million, but something well above the previous record -- perhaps something in the neighborhood of $15 million to $20 million, spread out over a multiyear deal.
Boras has been known to exploit the draft to his advantage. In 1996, he found a loophole that allowed four drafted players to become free agents, gaining them an extra $20 million or more in compensation. He has also taken clients, including Jason Varitek and J.D. Drew, to independent leagues to increase their bargaining leverage.
It has been suggested Boras could sign Strasburg to an independent league team or take him to Japan -- and re-enter him in the 2010 draft -- if he does not get what he wants from the Nationals; however, that would be a riskier move for a pitcher, given pitchers' tendency to suffer arm injuries.
Both Kasten and Boras profess their respect for each other. Two years ago, when there was an opening on the board of directors of the Sports Lawyers Association, of which Kasten is a longtime board member, Kasten nominated Boras for the position after first phoning his longtime foil to make sure he was up for it.
"He chuckled and said, 'Okay, tell me what's involved,' " Kasten recalled. "I said, 'There are two meetings a year -- you should try to make one of them, at least. Oh, and there's this elaborate initiation ceremony that almost everybody has survived.' He said he would do it, and he was voted on unanimously."
Asked about his professional relationship with Boras, Kasten said: "I think we get along fine. That's not to say we don't clash from time to time. Scott just wants to get the best deal he can, always. I get that."
That is a bit more diplomatic than the comments Kasten made about Boras in a November 2007 interview on XM Radio, when he said: "I used to think of Scott as a necessary evil, and now I've changed. I no longer think he's necessary. He and I are friendly enough personally, but I think the way he conducts himself is perfectly consistent with the job he's given within the system we have. . . . If the union took over that job, and we had an agent-free universe, I think everything would be better."
When Boras was asked his relationship with Kasten, he deflected the question, saying: "The owners are the ones who dictate the philosophy of the franchise. The employee -- his philosophy is not relevant. . . . I'm going to deal with [the Nationals] professionally and objectively. That means being unemotional. I don't get into the relationship thing. I deal with the substantive part."
Pressed about his past dealings with Kasten, Boras said, "I have never had a problem with Stan."
But that does not appear to be exactly true. In 2001, the Atlanta Braves, of whom Kasten was team president at the time, negotiated a six-year, $75 million contract with Boras client Andruw Jones, without Boras's involvement. Although Kasten and Braves GM John Schuerholz insisted the talks were Jones's idea, and that they received assurances from the player that he was keeping Boras informed, the agent was said to be miffed about the process.
When asked recently about the Jones incident, Boras seemed to be still miffed, though more toward the Braves franchise than toward Kasten. "If you have ownership that is going to go directly to players and deny them representation, it's something that's going to be impactful on their dealings with players in the future," he said. "Because all the players in the league know about that now."
The implications of the Strasburg negotiations for the sport as a whole are clear. Although MLB has affixed suggested bonus figures for each slot in the draft (those figures reportedly are down 10 percent from a year ago, reflecting the impact of the economic recession), the system is ignored by some teams. A precedent-setting deal for Strasburg may hasten calls for a firm compensation system in the next round of collective bargaining -- something even some players would applaud.
"I think it's wrong. I really do," said Texas Rangers lefty Eddie Guardado, a 17-year veteran. "Give a guy 15, 20 million [dollars] right out of the gate? Hey, let him go through the system like everybody else, and once he gets to the big leagues, let's see how good he is. If he's really worth $20 million, or whatever -- hey, not a problem."
However, a union official said: "Our stance is that we are philosophically opposed to any systematic cap on player compensation. We'd be worried [such a cap on draft pick bonuses] was just be the first step towards a wider salary cap for the whole sport."
Regardless, Kasten said, if there is momentum toward a major change to the system in the future, it won't be because the Nationals exploded the current system with a deal for Strasburg.
"We're attempting to sign someone consistent with the system already in place. That's our view, and no one [from MLB] is telling us that," he said. "We're simply not going to change the sport."